This is a question I often ask couples who come to see me for couples therapy. Most cannot answer the question beyond the superficial. However, it is an important question to ponder: relationships are not easy for the most well-adjusted of us and so there has to be a fundamental reason why we (generally) choose to pair bond (be in a committed intimate and romantic relationship with one other person).
I believe that we choose to pair bond as on an unconscious level it is the closest that we can come as adult humans to replicating the ideal) experience of childhood where we had a parent who was there for us, who would listen to us and who, most importantly, would help us make sense of our feelings so that we knew we were not alone. This is essentially what strong functional couples do – they listen to each other and try and work out what feeling their partner is trying to convey to them. The general term for this is empathy.
I therefore believe that this explains what we all want and why we all go into relationships. And also why so many of us keep on trying to find ‘the right person’ even after so many disappointments.
What happens to boarders?
Ex-boarders also harbour hope of a good relationship, however, may be at odds in identifying one. The attachment damage they have sustained and the abandonment (couched in privilege) that they have experienced, leaves them unconsciously yearning for that idealised mother who will be there unconditionally for them. Of course, what they eventually find in any relationship with another adult is that they are not in an unconditional relationship (no such thing exists) and then they withdraw to avoid being hurt or disappointed.
What does it look like?
We are all different and so are ex-boarders, however, many have some traits in common which I shall list:
Ex-boarders tend to-
- Withdraw emotionally from relationships in order to keep themselves safe and default to their indolence survival strategy;
- Struggle to make sense of what their emotions are telling them and lack the ability to navigate them without becoming overwhelmed: ex-boarders are good under pressure until they are not;
- Have an over-reliance on logic and rationality to make sense of the world – this does not work when confronted with a partner who is trying to share their emotions;
- Regulate (read manage) their emotions by controlling their external world – exercise, career success, sex, alcohol, drugs etc. Some may be less harmful than others but all show an inanity to be in contact with their inner world;
- Live a pseudo-life where they can never really allow themselves to feel alive as that can only happen through bringing themselves fully into relationships and navigating their needs through communicating boundaries.
What can be done?
The effects that the abandonment a child suffers from being sent to boarding school can be enormously significant. Often ex-boarders will only resent for therapy when they have ‘hit a wall’ in some way.
Psychotherapy can help and indeed is the only way to remap the brain and help ex-boarders come to life. As the damage is relational, the only remedy is a therapeutic relationship where the cut-off feelings of loss, abandonment and emptiness can be retrieved and experienced in the safety of a psychotherapeutic frame.
The term ‘Boarding School Syndrome’ was coined by Jungian analyst Professor Joy Schaverian around a decade ago. Since then, it has gained significant traction as a model for explaining the experiences and symptoms of adults who were sent away to boarding school as children. Please refer to Mark’s previous blog.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further ready by Mark Vahrmeyer –